Billboards aimed at HIV prevention
Billboards trying to drum up community support for gay black men were criticized Monday as a pastor, a daycare provider and a City Council member called for the billboards to come down.
The Rev. Alfred Thompkins, of Calvary Tabernacle, said the “I am gay” billboard message only encourages troubled youth to embrace homosexuality.
“A thirteen-year-old looks at these billboards and says, ‘That must be it, I must be gay,’ ” he said. “That goes directly against God’s purpose. As a resident of Schenectady, a pastor who works with young people, with families, frankly I’m really bothered by the message these send.”
The billboards offer three messages, showing gay men with their families, in church and on a basketball court. Each message starts with the announcement “I am gay,” in large letters, and concludes with, “We have always been a part of this community.”
They were designed by In Our Own Voices, a gay advocacy group in Albany. The state Department of Health paid for the billboards as part of an effort to find a more effective way to reduce the HIV infection rate, which has disproportionately hit gay and bisexual black men. Last year, the Centers for Disease Control said the epidemic had reached such a level that new methods must be found to encourage men to use condoms.
But there is no overt mention of HIV on the billboards. In Our Own Voices is instead hoping that greater acceptance of homosexuality could lead men to make healthier choices.
Daycare provider Pamela Spicer told the City Council that the billboards were so vague they were worthless.
“These messages are a failure. I think the Department of Health needs their money back,” she said. “The intent is to instruct them not to spread HIV if they have it … That does not come across in the message.”
Instead, she said, the billboards allow “inappropriate sexual expression.”
She argued that the messages should be limited to adult business zones — mainly industrial areas at the outskirts of the city.
She told the council that her clients read the billboards as she drives them to events in the city. She offers daycare to a 2-year-old, 4-year-old and 8-year-old.
“When I’m driving them to the Schenectady Public Library and they say, ‘What does gay mean?’ how do I answer that question?” she said. “How do I expose them to such content?”
Thompkins compared gay people to thieves and liars, saying he did not want anyone to join the ranks of sinners.
City Councilman Joseph Allen agreed with both speakers, although he admitted that he hadn’t noticed the billboards.
“Now, I don’t care if you’re gay, straight or whatever, but I don’t think it’s necessary to advertise for them,” he said. “This is not kosher, as far as I’m concerned.”
He said the billboards could encourage teenagers to become gay.
“An adult, fine, you can do what you want,” he said. “But who’s going to read these? Young people, vulnerable kids. They don’t say, ‘Adult only.’ ”
He called for legislation that would require billboard owners to get their messages approved by the council.
But Corporation Counsel L. John Van Norden said that would be illegal, citing the First Amendment, which guarantees free speech.
“You can’t control what people say, as hateful and objectionable as it may be,” he said.
Council President Gary McCarthy and Councilwoman Margaret King agreed that they have no control over the billboards. They declined to say whether they agreed with Allen’s objection to the message.
“It really becomes a free speech issue,” McCarthy said.
In other business, Councilman Carl Erikson was sworn in again, six months after his last swearing-in. He was appointed to the seat last June and had to win the November election to keep it.
As he put his hand on the Bible, his infant son solemnly added his own hand and patted the book enthusiastically. Then the baby tried to pull his father’s hand away.
Erikson had to grip the Bible through the second half of his oath as his wife struggled to hold the book and their son. Just as son Carl began to cry, Erikson got to the end, rushing to say, “to the best of my ability, so help me God.”
Erikson then delivered a speech in which he urged the council to take “bold risks” to improve the city, rather than simply doing what they’ve always done.
His wife listened from the doorway, where she was soothing their son outside the echoing council chamber.